One More Reason to Avoid “Gay”?

We’ve been around “the ‘gay’ identity label” block so many times before — see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — but I had a conversation this week that made me wonder if one more post just may be worthwhile.

The basic question is this: Should Christians who experience sexual and romantic desire for members of the same sex, and who want to live chastely in accord with biblical and traditional Christian teaching, describe themselves with identity labels like “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bi”?

The case for a No answer has been put pretty well by our friends over at the Living Out site:

The Bible knows nothing of the concept of “sexual orientation” — so no-one is ever referred to in the Bible as being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual. God’s word speaks only of sexual practices, i.e., those which are pleasing to God (sex within marriage, which is between one man and one woman) and those which are not (all other sex, whatever the context). I now have a new identity, one which is based not on who I’m sexually attracted to, but rooted in my most important relationship of all, that is my relationship with Jesus Christ…. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, where some had been converted to faith in Christ from a background of same-sex practice, “he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For me, part of the “old” that “has gone” is this idea of identifying myself and describing myself according to my sexual attractions. If I were to hold on to that label “gay”, as if it’s somehow intrinsic to who I am now, then by denying myself a same-sex relationship it would feel as if I’d be denying who I really am (an accusation some of my gay friends already level at me). If my true identity is in Christ, however, then denying myself a same-sex relationship seems like a much more positive outworking of my commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to put him first in my life.

I don’t want to rehash my case for a Yes answer — you can follow the links above if you want to see some examples of such a case. Instead, I want to ask you, dear readers, about a different reason entirely for answering the question in the negative.

Just this past week I was chatting with a new friend who describes himself as “a Christian who is same-sex attracted” (rather than “gay”). At one point in the conversation, the topic of labels emerged, and I asked him about his preference for “SSA.” His answer surprised me. It was nothing like the quote above. My friend spoke rather of a feeling of deference and respect for LGBTQ communities and his desire, as a Christian, not to offend them or put any obstacle in the way of ongoing conversation.

He told me about a gay friend of his who was not a Christian who told my friend (confused yet?!) that he would find it odd for a Christian committed to celibacy to identify as “gay.” The reason, he suggested, is that it represents a kind of conservative Christian takeover of a word that was originally developed, by a persecuted minority, as a means of solidarity.

“Gay” is a label that was forged by embattled people (think: Stonewall and all its resonant associations) who refused to let their sex lives be treated as sickness or perversion. “Gay” was their protest: we aren’t just sinners, we aren’t willfully rebellious, we don’t belong on psych wards; this is the way we act because it’s the way we are. Now, it would seem highly ironic — and perhaps even offensive — for Christians who intentionally give up gay sex to keep using the label that was practically designed to ennoble and safeguard precisely that kind of sex (among other things).

(I’ve encountered a version of this argument before, from my uber-smart queer atheist friend Jacob Bacharach: “I defy anyone to claim that any modern Christian acceptance of gay identity, whether or not it also accepts gay sexual acts, was the proximate result of anything other than the social and political activities of men and women who did, in fact, have sex with people of the same sex. These impermissible acts were, in addition to being expressions of love and desire, inherently political and inherently moral; gay sex expanded the moral imagination.”)

Anyway, I think this is a really interesting angle on the label/identity debate, and I can begin to imagine a Christian response — what if “gay” isn’t so much your choice as it is chosen for you (e.g., by your bullying teammates)? and what if, despite or even because of your Christian faith, gay communities are the primary communities to which you feel special responsibility? — but mainly I wanted to offer this as a question to all of you: If you’re a Christian, have you ever had anyone object to your calling yourself “lesbian” or “gay” for these secular, cultural kinds of reasons? And if you’re not a Christian and are LGBT, how does it strike you when a celibate, traditional sort of Christian guy like me keeps on calling himself “gay”? I really want to hear from you on this!


23 thoughts on “One More Reason to Avoid “Gay”?

  1. Pingback: One More Reason to Avoid “Gay”? – Site Title

  2. What an important question… and one I have not thought of before. I am not SSA, but I care deeply about putting no roadblocks to friendship… especially roadblocks that trigger an automatic negative response. Labels can be conversation-stoppers. I’ll be interested to see the community’s response.

  3. As a victim of incessant bullying throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was called “gay” before I even knew what the word meant. It took many years for me to understand and accept that “gay” was indeed what I was, and it is what I am today. Nevertheless I have never publicly identified myself as being “gay”, so I have never given my friends an opportunity to object to the term. When asked if I am “gay”, I always say “Yes and No” – Yes, in that I am almost exclusively attracted to men, and No, in that I do not identify myself by using that word, I do not pursue sexual intimacy with men, and I am committed to celibacy. If the word “gay” comes up in conversation, it is always accompanied with an explanation because, as a Christian, I feel compelled to be clear about who I am, and that I clearly stand for Christ, not my sexuality.

  4. When the question comes up, “Are you gay?” I do answer, “Yes, but I am committed to the Church’s traditional sexual ethic”. I consider myself semi-out of the closet because I won’t withhold the information, but there’s really no time to volunteer the information either, so I wouldn’t be surprised if no one knew I was gay in my day to day life (In exception to my closest friends and my confessor).
    Among LGBTQ+ acquaintances that know that I am gay but celibate, I haven’t had a negative reaction to calling myself gay. However, I am unsure if they just assume that I’ll flake on that pesky “celibate” bit the moment I meet a girl I like or not. (As I said, acquaintances)

    If I remember correctly, the short version of the argument to call ourselves gay even though celibate is that being gay is more than the sex act. I would say this still holds true when wondering if using “gay” is a kind of appropriation or not. When people are hated for being gay, there isn’t often evidence laying around that they are having gay sex or even in a gay relationship. It is often an assumed “gay-dar” thing. In short, being a gay Christian or gay and celibate isn’t any sort of protection against discrimination.

    In my church, “the gay discussion” has never really come up, in depth, to the point that I am out to most of my church community. So sometimes I do wonder if it does come up, and I don’t withhold my orientation, if I would be received as well as my closest friends and my parish priest have received me.

    Maybe this is rambling, but I hope it’s a helpful comment at least a little bit.

  5. My only feedback: I really believe the world would be better served if people spent less time policing what other people call themselves. Let’s admit the limitations and imperfections of language and then move on.

  6. I had some discussions along a similar vein back when I’d just converted to Christianity. Pre-conversion, I was very socially liberal and the majority of my social circle was LGBTQ+. So to embrace the traditional Christian sexual ethic seemed like a betrayal of where I was coming from, and that made me consider dropping the label of ‘gay’ as a self-identifier. Some anecdotal rambles that I took away from conversations with my LGBTQ+ friends:

    1. Celibacy doesn’t change the fact that if someone has a homosexual orientation, and in casual conversation ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ is the most concise way of expressing that. I raised the concern that I see my own ‘gayness’ as something that is ‘disordered’ compared to God’s intended design, and I can see how a non-Christian gay person would rather I not take the label that they’ve fought to remove shame from and redefine it as something that needs to be repented of. The response to this was mixed — most folks saw where I was coming from but either said that I was overthinking it, that language is always going to mean different things to different people, or that while they are upset by the church at large pushing shame on homosexuality, they are not going to try to police the labels that a specific individual chooses to use to describe their own experience.

    • 2. While I understand the preference some have to speak in terms of ‘same sex attraction’, my friends found that phrasing odd, and also pointed to it having the potential to imply that I wanted to distance myself from gay people by going out of my way to avoid sharing a label with them – as if I were inventing language for the sake of signalling moral high ground.

      3. They cautioned against the church using ‘gay Christian’ as a ‘bait & switch method’. For example, don’t try to draw a LGBTQ+ teen in by saying ‘our church loves gay people, there are gay people who are part of our church…’, and then down the line “spring” the traditional stance on them. This point makes me think that between LGBTQ+ non-Christians and LGBTQ+ Christians that affirm homosexuality, it might actually be the latter who takes more exception to celibate Christians popularizing the idea of a ‘Gay Christian’ as synonymous with ‘Celibate Christian’.

      The conclusion I came to is that I will continue to use ‘gay’ as a self-descriptor, but I will be wary of the conservative church using the label ‘gay Christian’ as some sort of disingenuous PR tool or as a means to excuse poor treatment of non-celibate gay folks by the church. I think it’s these latter concerns that would prompt an non-Christian to perceive conservative Christianity as performing a ‘takeover’ of the term as Wesley’s friend’ friend mentioned. But disclaimer — I’m relatively young and I live in a liberal town, so I’m sure I am biased towards seeing ‘gay’ as more of a simple adjective than a means of solidarity among a persecuted minority.

  7. I describe my reality as gay in part because I want gay people to know that I share this charachteristic with them. This is not to rob them or to repress them but because I also want them to know that we can be both have a gay sexual orientation and to also have Christ at the centre of our universe at the same time. I feel that acknowledging that we are alike is better than trying to draw semantic or political distinctions.

    I also believe that being gay is far more than just a homogenital issue. It informs much of how I think and relate to people. To me, ‘gay’ is not a stamp or a label that defines me. It simply Is another signpost that points others to my reality. It can help the Church to know that we exist and that we sit in the pews amongst the rest of them, and are not just an ‘issue’ that is ‘out there’.

    While Christ is the centre of my universe, being gay is part of my makeup just as much as being a guy is, or being short, or being funny, or the many other things that make me Kevin.

    • Oh and…… conservative evangelical Presbyterian minister describes me as a gay Christian who’s celibate out of love of Christ 😇❤😇

      I’m pretty cool with that 😎

  8. I really enjoyed Part 1 of J. Bryan Lowder’s piece on exactly this question at Slate a couple years ago, so much so I remembered it as I read this post. The title hints at exactly what you describe above: ”I was born homosexual, I chose to be gay”

    Here’s a good excerpt :
    The concept of a “gay apartment,” like “gay literature” or “gay mannerisms,” suggests that gayness also comprises a set of markers or values or practices that manifest themselves in the spaces and objects and relationships that gay men create.

    I would say according to this line of thinking it is very logical a traditional Christian might not want to identify as ”gay” because they have not joined into those markers/cultures/practices. And on the other side of that same coin, I can imagine SSA celibate Christians identifying as gay because they do feel like a part of that community and/or LIKE Broadway and Lady Gaga and can exist comfortably in those spaces even without having gay sex… since these things are not necessarily related to gay sex acts.

  9. Your friend truly must be a leftist of the worst kind, Wesley. This whole line of argument is wicked.

    The whole claim of gays to victimary consideration (and, hence, “liberation”) was the idea that we weren’t talking about a choice, but about an unchosen psychoemotional constitution or structure (“sexual orientation.”)

    If they’re going to say now that “gay” (with all its victimary cache) IS about (political indeed) sexual behavior or ideology, then this is a bait and switch, as behavior IS a choice, ideology IS a choice.

    No, gay describes an orientation, and that orientation we have in common whether we agree with the reprobate agenda of the sexual revolutionaries or not.

  10. I have been making this very argument for years Side B SSA Christians have been trying to usurp the gay community opposing our right to love and be treated as equals. It is the old wolf in the sheep’s clothing

  11. When asked about my sexuality or if the topic brings it up I’ve always found myself saying ‘no’ to being gay. I also find myself saying ‘no’ to being straight. I invariably always have to explain that I’m just ‘celibate’. I also explain that I was saved from the homosexual lifestyle but my desires haven’t changed, yet. I’ve never encountered anyone objecting to me using the term ‘gay’ to describe myself when I sometimes just don’t feel like engaging in a drawn-out discussion or am just being lazy. This makes me want to just ask some of my old friends whom are still in that lifestyle their thoughts. I would be curious to hear their responses. While my sexuality doesn’t any longer define me I’m just known as ‘Eric, who happens to be celibate.’.

  12. I very much appreciate the initial article and resulting discussion. Props and kudos to the fellow commenters and their thoughts.

    I have recently re-opened this discussion for myself as I am preparing to teach a class on counseling gender and sexual minorities in the context of a Christian counseling program at a Christian university. A central question I want to address is, “Is sexuality(defined here as sexual attractions and subsequent sex acts) something I do or someone I am?”

    This discussion has shed interesting insight on the matter, and I would love to hear more thoughts.

    Some of my thoughts…

    I am a gay christian man who is married monogamously to a woman. In my own experience, the value of and my use of the “Gay” label has undergone transformation over the years. In the past, the label has felt more crucial and under fire; lately it feels like a more or less innocuous extension of myself, similar to having long hair. I identify openly as gay in a clinical context where I counsel LGBTQIA clients and wish to establish rapport. I use “Same sex attracted” in church where I have indeed received sharp(SHARP) critique for using the “Gay” label.

    But my question still remains – are my sexual attractions a defining aspect of my identity, or merely a non-essential facet of my personality?

    I have to come back to being created in the Image of God. I’ve come to believe that a primary aspect of being made in the Image of God means being made in and for relationship. (God is trinity, is inherently relationship. When I engage in relationship, I am manifesting the Image in the most meaningful way.
    If relationship is key to the Image, then how I relate to people must also be an essential matter. For me, non-sexual though they are, all my interactions with all people are colored by the fact that I am primarily sexually and emotionally drawn to other men.

    Something like sexual attraction is pervasive, the same way as gender and race are. Maybe these aspects are not the eternal ultimate essences of us, but they are aspects of us so foundational that we cannot but experience the world through them. So then I experience the world as a gay man. When someone(or some church) rejects or criticizes that aspect of me and say they will only approve of or welcome the non-gay part of me…well there’s not much left after that. When my manner of related to (literally) every person in my life is rejected, only a fragment of my actual personhood is welcomed.

    I believe that I can carry the label of Gay, even while not explicitly endorsing all manner of same-sex behavior, because, as was stated in another comment, being Gay is not exclusively about the sex act. Being Gay is culture, history, politics, morals, thoughts, feelings and experience. Even though I am living in a heteronormatively structured family, my experience of this is still different than that of other straight men in my same situation.

    Just how different are those differences? Just how important are those differences? Those are questions I have yet to answer.

    • These two posts as a non-celibate gay man makes Wesley’s point. For Eric none of GLBT friends talk about our “lifestyle”. It is our lives. That word is offensive to the vast majority of our community. It shows that no you are not part of the gay community.
      Aidyn I cannot how anyone can claim to be gay when they have sex with a woman. That makes you bisexual even if the majority of your attractions are to men they aren’t exclusive. You say your experience is different than other straight men. I guarantee you your experiences compared to gay men are even more different so don’t know how you can make the claim to be gay. Your experiences aren’t anything like the majority of our community.

  13. I have used all sorts of descriptions for myself. I don’t usually start out with talking to people about by sexual orientation, but if it comes up, I now say that I am bisexual and then usually explain more fully that I am a faithful bisexual Christian who adheres to the historic Christian vision for human sexuality and marriage.

    I started in my youth by saying I struggled/wrestled with homosexual feelings/desires. I then progressed to saying that I wrestled/dealt with same-sex attraction. But I’ve since moved away from this. I have heard gay, lesbian, and bi friends who prefer for traditional Christians not to use their terms, because they say the identity cannot or should not be separated from living out that identity. I have usually retorted that were they to be isolated in some small society (or even a desert island) in which they were the only LGBT person, even if they could never again actively love another person, they would still have their attractions be what they are. Having one’s sexuality as part of one’s identity is not the same as pursuing every desire of that identity.

    I prefer to use the term “bi” for a few reasons. 1) It is the most easily understandable term for EVERYONE to know what I am talking about. And since I am open about my faith, I’ve never had anyone assume I am pursuing all of those desires. They usually respond with, “I know you’re a Christian…” or “I know you are totally faithful to your wife, so…” which leads to discussions on how I reconcile my sexuality with Christian faithfulness. 2) I have found many of the other terms speak of non-heteronormative sexual orientations and such in terms of curse, and I am trying, inspired somewhat by your (Wes’) writings, to see that part of myself as a gift and not a curse, a blessing and not a burden, an opportunity and not a hindrance. There are many ways in which me being who I am and being faithful to Christ allows me to serve Christ, the Church, and the world in unique and beautiful ways. 3) The term same-sex-attraction or same-sex-attracted doesn’t fit me or other bisexual people well. I am not same-sex-attracted. I am both-sex-attracted, and I could just as easily fall into sexual sin with someone of the opposite sex as I could with someone of the same sex. SSA language always seems to speak to gay and lesbian people, and then they throw in bisexuality for good measure, but it always feels a bit like bi-erasure, like our struggle is less somehow because we can fit in to heteronormative patterns.

  14. Pingback: A Note on Courage and Language | Spiritual Friendship

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